Keller on Worship

Tim Keller on making worship comprehensible to unbelievers:

Our purpose is not to make the unbeliever “comfortable”. (In I Cor. 14:24-25 or Acts 2:12 and 37–they are cut to the heart!) We aim to be intelligible to them. We must address their “heart secrets” (I Cor 14:25.) That means we must remember what it is like to not believe; we must remember what an unbelieving heart is like. How do we do that?

Worship and preaching in the “vernacular”. It is hard to overstate how ghetto-ized our preaching is. It is normal to make all kinds of statements that appear persuasive to us but are based upon all sorts of premises that the secular person does not hold. It is normal to make all sorts of references using terms and phrases that mean nothing outside or our Christian sub-group. So avoid unnecessary theological or evangelical sub-culture “jargon”, and explain carefully the basic theological concepts, such as confession of sin, praise, thanksgiving, and so on. In the preaching, showing continual willingness to address the questions that the unbelieving heart will ask. Speak respectfully and sympathetically to people who have difficulty with Christianity. As you write the sermon, imagine an particular skeptical non-Christian in the chair listening to you. Add the asides, the qualifiers, the extra explanations necessary. Listen to everything said in the worship service with the ears of someone who has doubts or troubles with belief.

Explain the service as you go along. Though there is danger of pastoral verbosity, learn to give 1 or 2 sentence, non-jargony explanations of each new part of the service. “When we confess our sins, we are not groveling in guilt, but dealing with our guilt. If you deny your sins you will never get free from them.” It is good to begin worship services as the Black church often does, with a “devotional”–a brief talk that explains the meaning of worship. This way you continually instruct newcomers in worship.

Directly address and welcome them. Talk regularly to “those of you who aren’t sure you believe this, or who aren’t sure just what you believe.” Give them many asides, even expressing the language of their hearts. Articulate their objections to Christian living and belief better than they can do it themselves. Express sincere sympathy for their difficulties, even when challenging them severely for their selfishness and unbelief. Admonish with tears (literally or figuratively.) Always grant whatever degree of merit their objections have. It is extremely important that the unbeliever feel you understand them. “I’ve tried it before and it did not work.” “I don’t see how my life could be the result of the plan of a loving God.” “Christianity is a straightjacket.” “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right.” “I could never keep it up.” “I don’t feel worthy; I am too bad.” “I just can’t believe.”

Quality aesthetics. The power of art draws people to behold it. Good art and its message enters the soul through the imagination and begins to appeal to the reason, for art makes ideas plausible. The quality of music and speech in worship will have a major impact on its evangelistic power. In many churches, the quality of the music is mediocre or poor, but it does not disturb the faithful. Why? Their faith makes the words of the hymn or the song meaningful despite its artistically poor expression, and further, they usually have a personal relationship with the music-presenter. But any outsider who comes in, who is not convinced of the truth and who does not have any relationship to the presenter, will be bored or irritated by the poor offering. In other words, excellent aesthetics includes outsiders, while mediocre or poor aesthetics exclude. The low level of artistic quality in many churches guarantees that only insiders will continue to come. For the non-Christian, the attraction of good art will have a major part in drawing them in.

Celebrate deeds of mercy and justice. We live in a time when public esteem of the church is plummeting. For many outsiders or inquirers, the deeds of the church will be far more important than words in gaining plausibility. The leaders of most towns see “word-only” churches as costs to their community, not a value. Effective churches will be so involved in deeds of mercy and justice that outsiders will say, “we cannot do without churches like this. This church is channeling so much value into our community through its services to people that if it went out of business, we’d have to raise everybody’s taxes.” Mercy deeds give the gospel words plausibility (Acts 4:32 followed by v.33.) Therefore, evangelistic worship services should highlight offerings for deed ministry and should celebrate through reports and testimonies and prayer what is being done. It is best that offerings for mercy ministry be separate, attached (as traditional) to the Lord’s Supper. This brings before the non-Christian the impact of the gospel on people’s hearts (it makes us generous) and the impact of lives poured out for the world.

Present the sacraments so as to make the gospel clear. Baptism, and especially adult baptism, should be made a much more significant event if worship is to be evangelistic. There may need to be opportunity for the baptized to offer personal testimony as well as assent to questions. The meaning of baptism should be made clear. A moving, joyous, personal charge to the baptized (and to all baptized Christians present) should be made. In addition, the Lord’s Supper can become a converting ordinance. If it is explained properly, the unbeliever will have a very specific and visible way to see the difference between walking with Christ and living for oneself. The Lord’s Supper will confront every individual with the question: “are you right with God today? now?” There is no more effective way to help a person to do a spiritual inventory. Many seekers in U.S. churches will only realize they are not Christians during the fencing of the table after an effective sermon on the meaning of the gospel. (See below for more on addressing unbelievers during communion.)

Preach grace. The one message that both believers and unbelievers need to hear is that salvation and adoption are by grace alone. A worship service that focuses too much and too often on educating Christians in the details of theology will simply bore or confuse the unbelievers present. For example, a sermon on abortion will generally assume the listener believes in the authority of the word and the authority of Jesus, and does not believe in individual moral autonomy. In other words, abortion is “doctrine D”, and it is based on “doctrines A, B, and C.” Therefore, people who don’t believe or understand doctrines ABC will find such a sermon un-convicting and even alienating. This does not mean we should not preach the whole counsel of God, but we must major on the “ABC’s” of the Christian faith.

If the response to this is “then Christians will be bored”, it shows an misunderstanding of the gospel. The gospel of free, gracious justification and adoption is not just the way we enter the kingdom, but also the way we grow into the likeness of Christ. Titus 2:11-13 tells us how it is the original, saving message of “grace alone” that consequently leads us to sanctified living: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope–the appearing of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.” Many Christians are “defeated” and stagnant in their growth because they try to be holy for wrong motives. They say “no” to temptation by telling themselves “God will get me” or “people will find out” or “I’ll hate myself in the morning” or “it will hurt my self-esteem” or “it will hurt other people” or “it’s against the law–I’ll be caught” or “it’s against my principles” or “I will look bad”. Some or all of these may be true, but Titus tells us they are inadequate. Only the grace of God, the logic of the gospel will work. Titus says it “teaches” us, it argues with us.

Therefore, the one basic message that both Christians and unbelievers need to hear is the gospel of grace. It can then be applied to both groups, right on the spot and directly. Sermons which are basically moralistic will only be applicable to either Christians OR non-Christians. But Christo-centric preaching, preaching the gospel both grows believers and challenges non-believers. If the Sunday service and sermon aim primarily at evangelism, it will bore the saints. If they aim primarily at education, they’ll bore and confuse unbelievers. If they aim at praising the God who saves by grace they’ll both instruct insiders and challenge outsiders.

Read the whole article here.

(HT: Vitamin Z)

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